Shanaze Reade finds a photo on her phone of a woman not dissimilar-looking to herself. It could be an older sister, perhaps. Or a cousin. Had she not told me, I’d have been guessing an awfully long time.
The photo is, in fact, of Shanaze, the former multiple BMX and track world champion, just three years earlier. She is 100kg, unrecognisable as the woman sat with me outside St Paul’s Cathedral on a chilly wintery London evening. She pulls up another shot on her Instagram feed, taken just six months after the first image. This is the Shanaze Reade we know and who is photographed on these pages.
We are going to discuss the rollercoaster last few years of her life, including a decidedly unhealthy scraping of the booze barrel that nearly destroyed her. And, as we will quickly discover, she’ll not be holding back. It’s not Shanaze’s style. I warm to her immediately, despite the rapidly dropping temperature.
Athletes are extreme personalities. This we know already. They are driven, self-obsessed, mostly capable of focussing on just the one task at a time – usually their own bodies and performances. They are also more prone to addiction in one form or another. Exercise is at the healthier end of the addiction spectrum. But at the other, drugs or alcohol can weave their insidious ways into a bike rider’s life. A top athlete is wired differently to you and me. They push that bit harder, go that bit further, suffer that bit more. And being all-or-nothing kind of people, it can wreak havoc when applied in the wrong direction.
Shanaze’s story is rather familiar in some respects in these times of openness and sharing inner feelings and emotions – extreme sporting highs and lows alongside personal struggles, diving off the edge of a cliff in post-career confusion – but rarely have I heard anyone take it to such levels as this woman. The determination from the age of 11 to become world champion, to get out of Crewe and build a career path in a sport where it barely existed in the UK, to fight for Olympic gold with a do-or-die final corner manoeuvre, then to blow up in spectacular fashion after retiring in 2017. Reade does nothing in half measures, including sharing the trials and tribulations of her fascinating and salutary existence to date.
Family life was complicated back home in Crewe in the 1990s. Shanaze’s mother gave birth to her at the age of 17, “a child who had a child” as she succinctly puts it. “So my nan and grandad brought me up pretty much. My mum was in and out of my life as I was growing up. I’ve got a half-brother and sister, 16 and 18, with my mum, and then my dad’s got about ten or 15 kids. Busy man! It wasn’t conventional by any means…”
Money was tight, but it was her grandfather who instilled the self-belief and desire to succeed. “He always said to me you can be whatever you want to be. And I still believe in that. I will give it my absolute best to see it through. We lived in a small town but he would say this doesn’t have to be your life.”
BMX came into her life at the age of ten and turned her world upside down. The future, so far as this kid was concerned, was all mapped out, despite there being no clear route to BMX stardom for a British racer in those days.
“I was a weird kid. I would sell my toys to buy bike parts, go to the car boot sale every Sunday and be first there to go through all the bits. I was wired differently, but I made it happen. I said to my mum I will give you a better life and I’ll be successful, and just ran with it. It could have gone either way. I took the right path and ended up having a good career.”
Shanaze would be driven all over the country by friends and mentors from the local BMX scene, competing in National Series events, racing the boys and usually beating them, riding a cobbled together, bargain basement bike. It made no difference to her. Reade knew where she was going. And how to get there.
“I remember going to bed at night as a kid when I first started doing BMX and I couldn’t sleep with excitement. I wanted to be the very best in the world at this sport. I was hooked on it. I was going to be a professional BMX rider – and I didn’t even know how that looked, it was the American dream back then.
“I’d be up at four in the morning on school days, clearing the ice off the road to try and do sprints. I’d always be on AOL, asking Jeeves how to be a faster bike rider. I’d be doing squats with my grandad – he got a turbo trainer and a shitty mountain bike from a skip, then I’d do intervals, squats with sandbags. I trained every day from the age of ten and a half.
“I’d do everything, completely hooked. It’s not right, is it?” Shanaze says, with a laugh and a look that suggests confirmation is welcome at this point. Maybe, maybe not, but hey, if it works for you.
“I had this bike and it was a piece of shit. And I won the European championships on it. And every single girl I raced against had the best kit. My wheels were from a skip, there were bits I had borrowed – seatpost and bars, because mine had broke. You just make it happen.
“In 2001, I went to the world championships in America on my own, at the age of 11, because we couldn’t afford someone to come with me. The council had fundraised for me. So I went to Louisville, stayed with a BMX family, got the flight back home.
“I’ve still got so many lovely families dotted around that I can spend time with because I had become part of their family. That’s what I loved about BMX, it was so sociable. They were my adoptive families.”
Titles as a junior include five British National Championships, eight European and three World Championships, setting the standard for Reade’s progression into the senior ranks. When not breaking bones – a not uncommon occurrence in this gloriously gladiatorial discipline – Shanaze was winning.
Success on a bike was not mirrored in school, however. Why apply yourself to maths and geography when your sport is the future? Not the smartest approach, perhaps, but it seemed to pay off eventually.
“I didn’t really go to school. They let me do BMX twice a week, I got onto this government programme. I was very disruptive. All I was thinking about was BMX. I was practising my autograph in maths all the time. And I was going home and practising interviews.”
Then something fortuitous happened. At the age of 16, and midway through her GCSE exams, the news broke that BMX would make its debut Olympic appearance in Beijing, 2008. Shanaze had four years to prepare. She started immediately.
“I remember walking to my school at the top of my street thinking, this is it. I can be Olympic champion, everything I have put into it can be realised. I didn’t do very well in my exams...
“I moved out and rented a tiny little box room from a woman in a house in Leeds. Lived there for two years and trained like a machine. Came out of there, won the World Championships, beat most of the men too. That winter I came out like a caged animal. I loved it.
“‘Train hard, race easy’ was my motto. I didn’t want to suffer in a bike race, so put in the work. I’d turn myself inside out, go to places that other people aren’t prepared to.”
Shanaze convened with her tightknit self-assembled crew, Team Reade, to discuss how to approach the Olympics and give her the best shot at gold. She came up with a pretty left-field suggestion: follow one of her idols, former BMX champion Jamie Staff, and try the track to gain experience of major competitions. After all, as Shanaze says, “a bike’s a bike. Just get on rip it”.
And get on and rip it she did, despite inauspicious beginnings. “I went into an office for a meeting with Shane [Sutton] and Dave [Brailsford], and I had done a track session to do some starts – they were all right, I was just getting used to the bike. I had heard there was a new event, the team sprint. I said to them I wouldn’t mind having a look at that. They were laughing at me.”
She asked the laughing lads what time she needed to do to be considered. Within three weeks, Reade had improved sufficiently to gain selection for the squad. In five weeks, she had gone from never having sat astride a track bike, and never having sat down during her races for that matter, to world champion in the team sprint with Victoria Pendleton – a remarkable transition by any standards. Aside from winning bike races, she was voted the Sunday Times Young Sportswoman of the Year in 2007. Everything was going according to plan.
Now based in Manchester, and with full access to the British Cycling facilities at the National Cycling Centre, all the stars were aligning for a triumphant debut appearance at the Olympics. And this, as many of you will know, is where it all came unstuck. In close second on the final bend to Anne-Caroline Chausson of France, Reade went for glory. Silver was not on her radar. She had not spent all these years training and dreaming of gold to be runner-up. The attempted pass on Chausson’s inside resulted in an overlapped wheel, a spectacular wipe-out, and no medal of any colour…
Shanaze briefly became a household name in the UK for the wrong reasons, but she certainly put BMX on the map for a watching world who wondered what this chaotic 40-second flying lap was all about. Crashes and injuries are a given in this sport. If she has any regrets, they are not clear to see.
“I learnt a lot about myself at that Olympics. I guess it taught me a hard lesson that there’s no guarantees in life, all you can do is give it 100 per cent and the result will take care of itself. Unfortunately, the Olympics didn’t go to plan for me.”
Four years later, at the home Games in London, it didn’t go to plan either – a disappointing sixth in the final having sailed through in the heats. Perhaps the ‘controllables’ approach of early era Brailsford and Peter Keen at British Cycling’s track programme makes sense after all. The best pursuiter or team sprinter will, more often than not, win their race. Throw a bunch of riders on the course at the same time and anything can happen. The best in the world can be made to look like an also-ran – and leave empty handed. I’d put Shanaze squarely in the latter category.
But you can’t help but feel, looking at Reade’s career overall, a sense of unfulfilled potential. Successes after 2012 were few and far between, certainly far fewer than her exceptional talent deserved. Injuries were taking their toll. She’d broken practically every bone in her body over the years. But there was something else lurking in the undergrowth. And the roots form here.
“I never drank. As a kid, when all the friends from school were going out on the piss, you’d never see me with them. Drinking, lads, going out – none of it was on my radar. As I got older, you’d go to after parties and think, you know what? I’ve won the World Championships, I’ll let off a bit of steam, it’s healthy to do so. I used to be the life and soul of the after-parties.”
In 2017, following a lengthy layoff due to yet another injury, British Cycling’s interim head Andy Harrison delivered the bad news. Shanaze was off the squad.
“I was fuming with them because they forced me to retire,” Shanaze says. “The medical team told them that I wouldn’t make another Olympic cycle because I’d had five operations on my shoulder. They put me on review and the only thing I didn’t make was my body weight, and that was because I had been off for nine months with my shoulder. I drove home totally distracted and wrote my car off, drove into the back of a parked car. I was pretty much one of the longest serving members of the squad along with Ed Clancy, and not one person called and asked how I was. Nothing.”
Reade felt compelled to retire from track and BMX racing immediately. And it all began to unravel rather quickly.
“When I retired, I thought I’d go off the rails for a bit because I needed to, but it took me three years to get back on them. People still thought I was funny, but inside I was dying. I was trying to mask it, to make me high, make me low – self-medicating on poison basically. I got to a point where I didn’t know what to do. Every day was like the weekend. All my friends were at British Cycling, I had nothing going on.”
Her girlfriend was the one to persuade Shanaze she needed help. Bottles of booze stashed around the house, her ballooning weight, mood swings – all the classic signs of alcoholism in action.
“I’d go home and tell my partner I’d been to see a specialist who told me I was fine, so what’s the issue? So then I believed it and just carried on. I was a binge drinker, so I’d go for three days on, then take a couple of days off, and think I was all right. But inside I was dying, peeing blood, in a bad way... I was screaming for help.
“I’d been to so many therapists before I went into the rooms of AA, and they had all told me I was fine. There was someone I went to see at British Cycling when I was still racing to talk about my alcoholism. I knew it wasn’t right. They told me I was fine, but I was crying in the room saying I wasn’t. That person is not in practice anymore.”
It was Alcoholics Anonymous, the longstanding organisation founded in 1935, where Reade found the answer to her problems and her rapid decline. She has now been free of the drink for over three years.
Shanaze corrects me: “Recovering is the word. As soon as you say you are free from something, there’s a potential to think you are cured. And the brain never remembers how bad things were. This is why I stay in AA – you can very much blank out pain. I need to be humbled.”
Meetings twice a week – currently over Zoom, of course – are actually something to look forward to, not endure. The common misconception that they are a circle of screwed up individuals staring at the floor and detailing their battles with the bottle could not be further from the truth.
“The meetings are the best. There are some of the nicest, most honest people you will ever meet. My perception of what AA was before joining was down and outs with bottles in brown paper bags. Well, I was probably the only down and out who walked into the room on that day over three years ago. There were lawyers, all sorts, people who you do not imagine would be alcoholics. We never talk about drink, but about how we are feeling. It’s like free counselling.”
Along the way, there was a comeback to competitive track racing, remarkably. With a new regime installed at British Cycling and the widely-admired Stephen Park in charge as performance director, the now trim and fit Shanaze got a call from the boss in 2018.
“Sparky was like, ‘obviously something’s changed, what’s happening?’ He asked if I would come back. I said absolutely not, it has taken me this long to figure out where I fit into society. It took quite a lot of back and forth. The relationship I have with Sparky and BC is way ahead of where it used to be – head and shoulders higher. I hadn’t touched a bike for two years, just did crossfit, and I was really happy. But within three sessions of being back, I was quicker than anyone else on the squad. Quicker than I had ever gone.”
Having won the team sprint at the British National Championships, the stage was set for World Championships selection, Olympic qualification and – maybe, just maybe – that gold medal that was missing from the collection. But within days, the dream had gone up in a puff of smoke. A change in the rules meant that, having not raced any previous rounds of the Track World Cup, Reade would be unable to compete and BC would have to send a slower team. They did not qualify for Tokyo. It was the end of the road again, but this time, with a happier conclusion.
“I shook everyone’s hand and said thank you for the opportunity, but I’ll walk away on my own terms. I took no lottery funding, just a bike and a skinsuit, and that’s it. My perspective on being an athlete when I went back into it had changed – I loved it. That’s why I believe my results and the performances were so good. I wasn’t doing it for anyone else. I didn’t feel like a manufactured athlete.”
And that is pretty much the end of the story for now, racing-wise. Reade had an inquiry from the British bobsleigh team to see if they could interest her in the next Winter Olympics but, as she replied: “Thank you for the opportunity but I don’t like the cold!”
Her portfolio career includes being West Midlands cycling and walking ambassador, other ambassador work with a variety of brands including HSBC, and fitness coaching online during the past year of lockdown. She keeps herself busy and out of mischief. She is as happy to talk to me about her love life and sexuality as with everything else during our time together. Reade’s previous girlfriend outed her to her mum via text after she had kept the relationship under wraps for two years. Mum was not best pleased about the delivery method of the news, while grandad – who frankly sounds like a top man – was characteristically cool: “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy,” Shanaze remembers him saying.
“I didn’t feel I ever needed to come out, I don’t need to put a label on myself. As long as people around me are happy, I don’t feel the need to.”
We discuss the Whyte brothers from my local BMX club, Peckham, and their careers. Big brother Tre has now retired, while Shanaze strongly fancies Kye to take gold at Tokyo 2021. Watch this space.
I very much get the feeling she is in a healthy place after a rocky few years. Reade’s career is doing just fine, she is in a good relationship and – most importantly – she has not touched a drop of alcohol in over three years. Given the normalcy of drinking in social situations, especially in the UK, how does she handle the pressure?
“When I started working with HSBC, I would go to events where there is free drink and everyone would say, ‘go on, have a drink, loosen up.’ And I have to explain that I’m a recovering alcoholic. But if my story can help someone, great. I am ambassador for quite a lot of big brands and I’ve done talks about it. Every time I will be contacted afterwards and someone will write: ‘Shanaze, I think I’m struggling.’ And their colleagues wouldn’t know. Lockdown has made it much worse for a lot of people too.”
The post-retirement blues is most definitely a thing with athletes. They are in the prime of their lives, having given everything from a young age to their vocations. And when their sports no longer require their services, that is it. Off you go and good luck with the rest of your years on this planet. Some cope admirably and move seamlessly into civvy street. Others, like Shanaze, drift aimlessly and almost go under. Thankfully, she turned it around.
“I liked having a drink and I wanted more of it. It made me feel good, but it landed me a seat in Alcoholics Anonymous. I spend a lot of time with [former England cricketer] Freddie Flintoff. He is 12 years sober, and we talk about the athlete’s mindset and the addiction to success.”
Shanaze is still successful, just in a different way. And on her own terms. “Everything I do now, how I look, how I feel, is for me. I wasn’t happy in the skin I was in.”